English PEN has a new president in the person of Pioneering publisher Margaret Busby. The editor, writer and literary critic who was the UK’s first Black female publisher will replace author and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands.
English PEN, writes The Guardian, is one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations and is the founding centre of PEN International, a worldwide writers’ association with 147 centres in more than 100 countries.
Born in Ghana and educated in the UK, Busby became Britain’s youngest and first Black female publisher when she co-founded Allison & Busby in the late 1960s with Clive Allison. She is also the editor of the pioneering Daughters of Africa, an anthology of writing by women of African descent from ancient Egypt to 1992, and its follow-up New Daughters of Africa, published in 2019.
“For some four decades, I have admired and supported the work of English PEN, and to be able to play a part in helping that work continue is a privilege,” Busby said. As president of English PEN she looked “forward to helping enable the full potential of literature worldwide, with equality of opportunity for all”.
“The world is in a volatile state: freedom of speech and expression is frequently under pressure and English PEN has been defending literary expression and raising awareness for more than a century”, she added.
Sands called Busby a “remarkable, inspiring and distinguished figure who has transformed literature in the UK”.
Over 20 years at Allison & Busby, Busby published authors including Buchi Emecheta, CLR James, Geoffrey Grigson and George Lamming. Among its best-known books are The Worst Witch series for children by Jill Murphy.
Allison & Busby was bought out by WH Allen in 1987, and while Allison was kept on, there was no job for Busby. She went on to become editorial director of Earthscan for three years, and has been freelance ever since.
She had judged literary prizes, including being chair of judges for the Booker prize in 2020, the year the prize was forced to go completely online because of the coronavirus pandemic, and is behind a scholarship at Soas University of London, offering an award worth £20,000 for Black female students ordinarily resident in Africa to study for an MA in African Literature at Soas.
A long-time campaigner for diversity in publishing, Busby is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and recipient of several honorary doctorates, in addition to a number of other honours.
“I am glad to be able to bring my personal experience to the cause of English PEN, having valued and recognised the power of words throughout my professional life – as a publisher, editor and writer,” she said. “Supporting courageous writers, allowing a variety of views and different voices to be heard, can be rewarding and enriching for everyone. The freedom to write and freedom to read is freedom to learn.”